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To make films is human, to Baz Luhrmann, divine

The 3rd AACTA Awards could have been renamed A Celebration of Baz. Tracey Nearmy/AAP

In retrospect, it seems a foregone conclusion that The Great Gatsby would have blitzed the 3rd AACTA Awards, held in Sydney last week. As a A$120 million budget film that took more than A$28 million at the Australian box office and a total of more than A$350 million worldwide (figures from Box Office Mojo), it is bigger in both budget and revenue than all the other film entries combined.

But in accepting the accolade for Best Director, Baz Luhrmann seemed genuinely surprised – and given the last time he stepped up to the podium in Australia was in 1992, he probably was.

It’s a proud Aussie tradition to snub success, but the 3rd AACTA Awards (formerly the AFI awards) could have been renamed A Celebration of Baz. Not only did The Great Gatsby dominate the industry luncheon on the Tuesday, it also grabbed the lion’s share of the awards on Thursday night. The only Award it didn’t win was for Best Actress, which went to Rose Byrne for her turn in Tim Winton’s The Turning (2013), over Carey Mulligan.

Trailer for The Great Gatsby.

As well as picking up the awards, there was a song and dance number during the night which celebrated Baz’s oeuvre from Strictly Ballroom (1992), through Romeo + Juliet (1996), Moulin Rouge (2001), and Australia (2008), as well as Gatsby (Baz is doing a musical version of Strictly Ballroom). There was also a fascinating clip portraying how Baz and Co. managed to create a film about 1920s New York in Sydney, Australia, by the expert deployment of blue screen technology and a legion of highly talented artists and digital compositors.

Finally, there was Baz himself, along with partner and collaborator Catherine Martin, co-producer Catherine Knapman, and co-writer Craig Pearce. Baz spoke from the heart, without referring to any notes, and seemingly not having prepared a speech.

He emphasised the collaborative nature of his work, the centrality of his partnership with Catherine Martin in particular (who has been honoured with Academy Awards for her costume design) and his high school years with co-writer Craig Pearce.

Baz explained that it was only possible to make The Great Gatsby in Australia through the talents and experience of his team. People thought he was mad to even try, and Sony famously passed on the project before Warner Brothers and Village Roadshow agreed to finance it.

Of course, a key plank in Baz’s team was Leonardo DiCaprio, a bankable star and someone that Baz helped put on the map by casting him in a lead role as Romeo in Romeo + Juliet when a still relatively unknown 19-year-old. DiCaprio had responded to Baz’s challenge by flying over to Sydney to film a test scene under the Harbour Bridge.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Luhrmann in 2013. Ian Langsdon/EPA

For the industry professionals at the 3rd AACTA Awards at the Star Event Centre in Darling Harbour, there was a sense that the gongs for Gatsby were at least in part a compensation for failing to recognise Baz’s previous work.

Moulin Rouge was passed over for Lantana at the 2001 Awards, and Australia was eclipsed by Samson and Delilah in 2009. Indeed Romeo + Juliet, for many Luhrmann’s strongest work, was not even deemed “Australian” and was therefore ineligible to enter the AFI Awards since it was US financed, shot in Mexico and had no Australians in the cast.

But with the increasing internationalisation and cross-fertilization in the film industry, it is arguable that today Romeo + Juliet would be deemed Australian, since it was made by Bazmark, an Australian company, with Australian key creatives and post-produced within Australia.

Luhrmann accepts the Best Movie award at the AACTA Awards 2014.

Indeed, it is possibly as Australian as The Rocket, winner of this year’s Best Original Screenplay award by Kim Mordaunt, a film that was shot entirely in Laos and Thailand with a local cast speaking Lao, by an Australian and local crew, and post-produced in Australia.

Obviously there is something inherently unjust about comparing a small budget film like The Rocket with The Great Gatsby. The Rocket starred a cast of unknowns, many of them children plucked from the streets of Thailand.

To pit first-time actor Sitthiphon Disamoe against the veteran Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio is clearly absurd. But such is the nature of screen awards, which regularly put vastly different types of project in scope and creative ambition against each other.

Lurhmann at the launch of Strictly Ballroom, The Musical at Sydney’s Town Hall, last year. James Morgan/AB Publicity

And in accepting the Best Actor Award on DiCaprio’s behalf, Baz was generous in honouring the child actor Sitthiphon Disamoe by seeking him out in the audience and assuring him that his time would come. It was an opportunity for the young actor to stand up in his tux and beam to everyone as he received a round of applause.

There is always something a little sad about one film swamping all the other nominees, as happened in 2004 with Cate Shortland’s Somersault, and so it was good to see The Turning (produced by Robert Connolly and Maggie Miles) win an award for Rose Byrne on the night, as well as The Rocket, both richly deserved.

But given the success of Baz Luhrmann’s films with Australian audiences if not always its critics - indeed, Lurhmann has three films in Australia’s all time Top Twenty, a major feat in itself – it was great to see Baz visibly moved on the podium when he said it meant a lot to him to be recognised in his own country.

So what is Australian about a New York story from an American novel? Simply, it’s an Australian take on that story. An Australian film, by an Australian production company, with Australian finance (as well as American), written by Australians, acted by a cast of Australians (with a couple of Americans), shot in Sydney by Australians, and post-produced by a team of brilliant Australians. And what is more, it’s a Bazmark Film. By Baz.

At the AACTA industry luncheon MC Patrick Brammall suggested that the verb “to Baz” enter the lexicon, meaning to go over the top with enthusiasm and verve in order to create something unique, as in “I bazzed up a great omelette”. Perhaps we should take him up on the suggestion.

For more on the AFI/AACTA Awards, see the recently released iBook: Shining a Light: 50 Years of the AFI, by Lisa French and Mark Poole.

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